I’ve been dealing with this for a long time. Along the way, I’ve played every type of golf course imaginable, from ultra-exclusive and regular major championship venues to modest resort courses to municipal “one-day country club” courses and the 9 budget mom and pop holes.
The first thing you learn is that there is no average golf course. How can this be the case, when maintenance budgets for 18-hole layouts range from $300,000 a year to $3 million? This diversity, in fact, is what makes each round so interesting. After all, the game’s rulebook only states one industry standard – that the hole you’re playing in is four and a quarter inches in diameter.
The resulting differentiation means that golf has the most varied and compelling playing fields in the sport. Terrain, width of fairways, soil composition, playing textures in terms of grasses and hole lengths vary. You also have teeing ground options that allow you to play “the same course” differently from day to day. And the layout looks different every day depending on the direction of the wind and the location of the hole.
You quickly get a good idea of the type of establishment you are visiting. Personally, I much prefer routes where it is obvious that I have the possibility of walking. I don’t care if it’s a prestigious private club or a daily rate with a cabana for a clubhouse and dirt for fairways: nothing puts me off more at the start than seeing a long line of motorized golf carts near the pro shop, as if you are expected to ride rather than walk. It sets a bad tone. Alarm bells are ringing.
The same goes for places that are full of instructions. Directional signage everywhere. Long lists of rules about proper dress. Messages about Stimpmeter readings for that day. A sheet of pins. It’s TMI in my fragile world.
The same goes for vertical intrusion on the golf course. The need for a marker similar to a graveyard stone on each tee indicating yardage and a map of the holes is an indulgence that hinders the ability to scan the horizon and appreciate the terrain. Ball washers create the same intrusive effect and should be removed.
One of the great assets of any golf course is its natural setting. Don’t hide it. The first time I played at Northland Country Club in Duluth, MN, the back of the downhill par-4 13th hole was surrounded by trees, hiding behind it a spectacular long view of Lake Superior. The next time I was there the trees were gone and the hole had an amazing view of the edge of infinity with the lake as a deep backdrop.
Not all courses have this kind of framework. Interior views are a must on many courses – or they would, if only the club removed what looks like ornamental Christmas tree plantings and other amateur scenery features better suited to a snow globe than at a golf course.
Clubs waste time and labor installing colored flags indicating front, middle and back. What happened to judging as part of golf? Additionally, many golfers are now equipped with hand-held (or cart-mounted) distance devices that can determine where the hole is cut. The vast majority of golfers would benefit from never aiming for a flagstick and simply playing for the first third of every green. A colored flag, please – ideally a solid yellow, which shows more clearly than any other. Ask any golf course photographer.
It’s not snobbery. It’s all about the ease and simplicity of setup. The same goes for mowing patterns. Golfers would benefit in terms of definition and view of the shape of a hole if the course did not have an intermediate cut and instead showed the contrast between the height of the fairway and a singular rough cut. It would also slightly reduce the maintenance workload.
Given the wide range of budgets and customer expectations, it’s understandable that some courses have more resources to devote to setup. The difference is in how this is deployed. Golfers would be better served with a focus on approach maintenance and firming up areas short of greens, for example. It’s a much better use of resources than layering four different collar heights and light roughs around the hitting surface – or spelling out the club’s name in an annual flower bed behind the iconic par-3 waterfall.
Regardless of pedigree, what matters in presenting a golf course is being true to its unassuming identity. As with so many things in life, ease and simplicity go a long way in showing native virtue.